GOP Senator Says America, The World’s Leading Jailer, Doesn’t Put Enough People In Prison


Many lawmakers appear ready to begin unwinding the system that’s left millions of Americans rotting in prison and blocked those who do make it out from the economic opportunities they need to rejoin polite society. But one Republican lawmaker rejects the idea that America has a mass incarceration problem at all.

“The claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact,” Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said Thursday at the right-wing Hudson Institute. “For the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed.”

“If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem,” he said.

Cotton went on to invoke decades-old reports about crime during the 1980s and 1990s, flashing the audience back to the media environment that produced the mandatory minimums, three-strikes rules, and racist disparities in drug crime punishments of President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. He criticized efforts to unwind those much-derided policies today, specifically deriding “ban the box” policies that give ex-convicts a better shot at finding legitimate work. described efforts to restore voting rights to felons as a partisan tactic to drive up Democratic turnout and make it easier for people to find jobs after they exit prison. At one point, he directly accused such policies of creating higher rates of crime.


There are 2.3 million Americans in jails, prisons, and juvenile corrections facilities today. Nearly one half of all American children have at least one parent with a criminal record, which makes it prohibitively difficult to even get a job interview let alone find employment.

America is by far the world’s leading jailer, with less than 5 percent of the planet’s population but more than 20 percent of its prison population. Half of all the countries in the world imprison fewer than 150 out of every 100,000 citizens. The U.S. puts 716 out of every 100,000 Americans is in prison — compared to 475 in Russia, 294 in South Africa, 274 in Brazil, 132 in Malaysia, and 80 in Egypt,

It may be tempting to dismiss Cotton as an unserious figure. But his backward approach to criminal justice is already having a tangible influence on the still-young bipartisan movement to walk back years of self-defeating policy crafted in the heyday of Tough On Crime politics.

After months of work last year, a Senate group that includes such odd bedfellows as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and longtime criminal justice hardliner Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) passed a sweeping prison and sentencing reform measure out of the Judiciary Committee. It was an optimistic time for long-suffering reform advocates.

But that legislation is already starting to crumble in the face of absolutist opponents like Cotton, who portray reform efforts as naive do-gooderism and dismiss the idea that current legal definitions of “violent” and “non-violent” crime should be reassessed in light of the mass incarceration crisis.


Last month, the leaders of that coalition caved to Cotton’s cadre by undercutting their own legislation. The new version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act introduced in April looks very different from last year’s bill. It drops provisions aimed at helping convicts deemed “violent” because they had a weapon with them when they were arrested for a drug charge, and refocuses aid on the group of prisoners who are politically easiest to help: non-violent drug criminals.

The changes ruin the legislation’s chances of actually delivering a meaningful decrease in America’s runaway-train mass incarceration problem, as Vox’s Dara Lind noted at the time. By making it much harder for violent felons to find leniency, Lind wrote, the new bill bows “to the very myths that made mass incarceration so potent.”

Relatively few of the millions of Americans now behind bars are labeled “non-violent.” Reform that leaves out those tagged as “violent” — a delineation that sounds far more precise in theory than it is in reality — cannot make a meaningful dent in the American prison problem. That’s a matter of math, not opinion.

The Senate’s changes were designed to neutralize opposition from people like Cotton. He remains vocally opposed. The bipartisan lawmaking group is desperately wooing an ideological cohort that will never not hate what they’re doing. Cotton’s role as a mouthpiece for old-timey lock-em-up simplistic policy, and Hudson’s role in amplifying his message, are a threat to reform in a subtler way too.

The non-profit that hosted Thursday’s event has long received funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, most of it through their pass-through organizations Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust. Koch money also helped elect Cotton in 2014.


That funding reality is in some ways more damaging to the long-term prospects of the nascent criminal justice reform movement. Ultimately, Cotton’s speech is a reminder that the Kochs are playing both ends against the middle on this issue.

The arch-capitalists have been a key funder to the loose coalition of left and right groups that is working to unravel the mistakes that created today’s mass incarceration problem, including the Center for American Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Tax Reform. But while the relatively new Coalition for Public Safety uses the Kochs’ money to press for reform, Hudson and Cotton use it to stand in the parole-house door screaming “no.”